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The Short Story of Harry Peyton Steger: chapter 9
By Allen Rich, with excerpts from The Letters of Harry Peyton Steger, 1899-1912
Apr 13, 2018
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"Do you remember what it was that landed me in the penitentiary?" an obviously unhappy Harry Peyton Steger wrote to Austin, Texas buddy Ed Miller.  "Inter nos (or to prove bilingual ability) entre nous, never come to the Hopkins unless Huntsville is full."

The "penitentiary" Steger refers to is Johns Hopkins University, a prestigious graduate school no doubt, but a place, at least in Harry's estimation, without the warmth of Austin

The letter was written in January 1905 from The Hopkins Canning Factory, Tomato Ward, Vegetable No. 386.

"My impressions of Baltimore," Harry tells Roy Bedichek, "are confined to the facts that it stinks miserably and that there are three cops in town.  I am not happy here.  Of course, even if I had sufficient reason to be, I couldn't.  I'm not built that way."

The last part of that paragraph probably reveals much more about Harry, and writers in general, than the first part tells about Baltimore.

"There is a rarified atmosphere here," Steger writes to John Lomax.  "There are magnificent libraries, able men, masterpieces of art, all that is quiet and elegant, but there is neither the bone-crackling hand-shake nor the cordial welcome to the stranger to which you and I in the South are trained.  If somebody would just slap me on the back, I would not feel so blooming homesick."

Just financing the year at John's Hopkins caused great consternation, as Harry had noted in a previous letter to Lomax.

"Nothing remains save to beg from wealthy relatives, a course which would subject me to greatest humiliation and my family to a position of serfdom," Harry explained with his typical dramatic flair.

Evidently the family loan weighed heavy on Harry during the time he was in Baltimore.

"Recently, when I hied me away to these classic halls to mouse around in the linguistic herbarium, I brought me a regular prince of ghosts, who is now squatted grimly on my future," Harry explains to Edgar Witt.  "He is a large mortgage, nice and comfortably housed.  He stays with me, and does not allow me to forget he is here.  I think he loves me.  He is undoubtedly helping me toward my doctorate.  He belongs to a usurer in dear old, nasty old Bonham."

Steger's writing is already rife with Latin and Greek influences, and would become even more so.  But, even with a myriad of influences swimming in the young scholar's head, some of Harry's richest allegory sprang from his Fannin County roots.  Baltimore was cold and lonely.  Steger said he felt like a rooster that had wandered too far from its barnyard.

"If you want to do much in the crowing line," he advises Lomax, "stay at home.  I wonder whether I couldn't get back in time now to make a crop!"

(The reference to "make a crop" is vivid, but strictly symbolic.  After tossing out that same phrase in a letter to Bonham lawyer P.C. Thurmond, Steger admits he never spent a day of his life working in the field.) 

Here is another colloquial gem that anyone from the Old South can appreciate, but one that would probably be lost in translation in the stuffy atmosphere that was suffocating Steger as he struggled for his Ph.D. at one of the finest graduate schools in the nation.   

"All these graduate students here in the classics are soul-killing sticks, who know their Latin and Greek with a disgusting thoroughness when it comes to paradigms and irregular verbs," Steger tells Bedichek, "but, invariably, they have no more appreciation of the Greek or Roman heart than a tumble-bug has for pate de foie gras."

Bedichek would have loved that observation.  Lomax would have laughed.  But Bedi and John weren't there anymore.  The joke would even have put a grin on O. Henry's reticent mug, but that friendship was still years away. 

For now it was just the Hopkins and Harry.

But there was one saving grace.  Professor Gildersleeve.

"Had it not been for him (Gildersleeve), Harvard would have undoubtedly been the theatre of my struggles," Steger remarked to Miller.

"Gildersleeve, in spite of his 74 years, is still ripe and not yet rotten," Harry tells Lomax.  "He is, of course, the eminent Hellenist of America, possibly of the world; and his scholarship, besides having kidney and liver and all of the grosser anatomy, possesses heart and life."

"Gildersleeve is the sole case of bona fide genius I have met," Harry admits to Bedichek.  "He is in the prime of mental acumen; and his repartee is epigrammatic and satisfyingly smutty.  He is as much of a Greek as Aristophanes ever was and a damned sight more of one than Plato or Aristotle or the Hellenic dust-sifters."

And Dr. Bloomfield was "a Sanskrit shark," as Harry put it.

"Bloomfield," Steger continues to Lomax, "who, since the death of Whitney, has become recognized as the chief Indic and philological authority in America, and, with some pretzel-smacking savant of Tuebingen, of the educated world, is, strange to say, a man of delightful personality. His English is the purest and the most beautiful that I have ever heard or read."

Harry says that discussions with his Harvard connection, E.R.P. Duvall, points to the fact that Hopkins does require more work for its PhD than any other institution; perhaps no more on the cerebral level, but certainly more work.

However, Steger asks Ed Crane which fellows back in Austin "ought to be shot via the Cactus."

"I'll try to penetrate some of them," Steger comments to Crane, "just for the recreation when I grow tired of playing hide and seek with a Greek preposition or of trying to find out whether Caesar threw double six or crapped in that memorable crap game prior to his passage of the Rubicon."

At times, Steger almost hints at the future that waits beyond these trying times in a storied institution Harry calls "the greatest graduate school in the world."

For instance, Baltimore has a steady flow of German steamers. 

"I have to keep away from the wharves," Steger says to Bedichek, "for it is all I can do to keep off them."

Europe is calling.

Steger even seems to anticipate the eventual publishing of The Short Story of Harry Peyton Steger when he asks Bedichek if biographers would prize his letters more if they were hand-written.

"Does my use of a typewriter militate against my chances for fame?" Steger wonders.  "Would my letters to you be prized the same by biographers posthumous when transmitted via the crescendo keyboard as they would be when phrased in actual work of hand?"

And Harry finally manages to sell a piece of work to a publisher.

"I got two dollars and seventy-five cents for it," Steger tells Edgar Witt.  "Ain't literature profitable?"

Previous Steger articles: